Making the Breath

The question of fabrications and intention has stayed on my radar  since I wrote last week’s blog post, and I thought it might be good to delve into the subject a bit more because I have found it to be very supportive for my meditation practice. Fabrications are not all bad, it turns out.

The subject does admittedly have the potential to be a little bewildering at times; it was quite a lot for me to get my head round too initially, but the subject has become clearer to me by putting it into practice.  This week hopefully I can fill out some of the details a bit about fabrications and intentions, and how they can be put to good use.

Let me start with the fabrications though, what are they and why are they usually a problem? Their proper name in Pali is saṅkhāras, a thoroughly untranslatable word, but what it refers to is what our mind makes out of the raw sensory data it receives. A Buddhist monk and a modern psychologist wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the statement that what we experience as reality isn’t so, it is a construction, a composite picture built up by the mind with information from the senses. Where the disagreement between the two might lie is in how much choice we have over that picture, and how problematic the picture we create is.

For Buddhists, the saṅkhāras are at the very heart of all of our problems, because the picture we make of the world not only doesn’t reflect reality well, but our attitude towards it is so wrong that it creates no end of suffering for us.

Last week faced with the question what do we fabricate, the answer I gave was everything. In a nutshell, what we fabricate is our experience, and I don’t mean at the level of thinking about what is happening to us right now – although that too is a fabrication – I mean every experience we have of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and thought at both the most basic level of a feeling of pain in our left knee, to our most complex conceptual ideas about the world, the universe, and everything.

Fabricating isn’t the same as ‘imagining’ or ‘making things up’; we don’t ‘imagine’ the smell of a cinnamon bun, these sensory experiences do happen, the fabrication is how our minds choose to present them to us. Perhaps our fabrication is how sweet the smell is, or how spicy the smell is, or how abominable the smell is (because we hate cinnamon buns, or because it is distracting us from writing an essay), or perhaps our fabrication is that there is no smell at all because our mind is focussed deeply on something else. The source of the sensory stimulation is the same in each of these cases, the experience we have of it can be quite different, and in the Buddhist way of understanding the world that is because of the way that we have fabricated that experience.

 I often habituate to smells really quickly, and if you’re not sure about how much impact our mind has on our sensory experience then habituation shows that the mind has a big hand in it. Habituation is an interesting tactic the mind uses to reduce its workload; once something has been present in your sensory range for a while and it is recognised to not be a source of danger, the mind simply stops sending you any information about it, it is no longer in your picture unless it changes in some way or you deliberately make it conscious again. When I light an incense stick at the start of my meditation, I can’t actually smell it for more than a couple of minutes because the mind habituates to it, but with my eyes open I can see very clearly that it is still kicking out smoke. So, much as I love cinnamon buns, if I was sitting in a room with the smell of them for more than a few minutes the smell would disappear! The buns might also disappear too, but that wouldn’t be because of habituation…

Cinnamon buns aside, fabrications have pretty big implications for what we consider to be our ordinary experience. Everything we experience has been constructed in some way by the mind, even our experience of having a body is a fabrication [1]. This doesn’t mean that we don’t actually have a body though, there is no way for us to get outside of our range of experience to be able to prove it either way, so I generally find it easier to just consider that there is ‘some kind of body’ but the experience we have of it is largely mediated by the mind.

What is wrong with our attitude to the saṅkhāras though? Many things, for one we don’t realise that the picture we make of the world doesn’t reflect reality so we take it too seriously. We also don’t realise that we made  the picture, it is our fabrication and we can change it if we know how. But these issues would be fairly tolerable if we didn’t put so much faith in our fabrications as a means to finding happiness. The trouble is that:

Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā – all saṅkhāras are impermanent. (Dhp 277) [2]

Whatever we fashion we cannot keep, so if we create something pleasing it inevitably has to come to an end at some point, hence:

Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā – all saṅkhāras are unsatisfactory. (Dhp 278) [2]

This is Buddhism’s most basic lesson, trying to find happiness in things that are impermanent will end up causing us suffering.

Why do we fabricate though? The process is driven largely by our ignorance of it, or unawareness as Ajahn Mun describes it [3] , and how much unhappiness it causes us. But Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that another major contributing factor is that the mind itself has a basic habit of creating things [4], in fact it comes to know things primarily by putting pieces of information together.  So we have a mind that works on a principle of creating things out of the information it is given, and we have a lack of understanding about what it is creating and what the impacts of that can be.

He adds that because we have too much data coming in from our senses to hold it all in our attention at the same time, the mind has to make some choices about what to bring into awareness. For instance, pain is a sensation that the mind often chooses to make us aware of simply because it is usually a warning signal that we might have to respond to, but we have the choice to let go of that point of attention and move it somewhere else or to double down and really focus on the pain. In other words, we have more choice around a feeling of pain that we ordinarily think, and that is why fabrications are also intentions:

“ You can choose not to make it more intense. You can choose even to ignore it entirely. Many times we have habitual ways of relating to sensations, and they’re so habitual and so consistent that we think there’s no choice at all. “This is the way things have to be,” we think, but they don’t.” [1]

This is one of the really important things that we learn through meditation, that our experience is an endlessly shifting landscape that we have some agency over, and that is something that we cannot fully appreciate without gaining a direct experience of it.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu uses the analogy of a radio to explain how this process of choice works. [1] Deciding which sensation to focus on – such as the breath, the pain in your left knee, a thought about what to cook for dinner, or the smell of cinnamon buns – is like deciding which radio station to tune into. Tuning into one station doesn’t make the other stations disappear, they’re still there to tune into if you decide you want something different, likewise the rest of your available sensory experiences are still there if you choose to move your focus.

You might be thinking, ‘yeah but when I tune my radio I don’t have to go back to it every 5 seconds because it’s skipped to another station, unlike my mind…’ Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that some of us have ‘radios’ that we haven’t taken much care of, and so they need to be constantly re-tuned. But he also says that the problem with staying ‘tuned in’ on one sensation can be to do with how we react to the sensation we are looking at. Sometimes we need to reach for the volume control, because what we are focussing on is too loud to sit with it comfortably for long, or because it is too quiet to fully hold our attention. He suggests that we can learn to use the volume control skilfully to set the optimum level to stay on that channel. [1]

But to go back to the fabrication side of it again, we have scope to choose what we focus our attention on, and we also have a choice of what to make of it (pun intended). We endlessly create our world out of our responses to the signals that we receive. We smell cinnamon buns and we tell ourselves a story about how we’re going to eat one with a cup of coffee, or how we can’t eat one because we’re on a diet. Neither of these scenarios is ‘real’, nor is one more real than the other, they are only the output of our mind processing the smell of cinnamon buns, and when we remember that, then we can realise how much choice we have over how we respond to ideas like that.

One thing I found really useful about the way Thanissaro Bhikkhu talks about the process of fabrications is that rather than treat  the saṅkhāras as thoughts as we might often do, he talks about it in terms of making other worlds [4]. So for instance, you are sitting in the world that you have currently made where you are writing an essay, but once the smell of cinnamon buns reaches you, in your mind you create another world where you ditch the writing and go and eat the buns instead.

Considering it as creating other worlds really brings home to me both the fact that it is fabricating, and that it is intentional. At the point we smell cinnamon buns we have a choice of whether to react to it or not, so when the idea to go and eat them comes up it is clearly an action that we have willingly put our energy into, we have taken the choice to switch some resources towards making that thought. And that thought ‘takes us away’ from whatever it was that we were previously attending to, we have left one world and gone to another.

The reason we don’t usually think of this as fabrication is because the process of creation is obscured from our view; we normally get so caught up in our experience, and believe it so wholeheartedly that we have no reason to stop to raise any doubts about it, so we don’t get much opportunity to see what is going on. We don’t normally question any of the processes going on around us until something goes wrong, which in the case of fabrications might be at the point we realise how much we are suffering. Meditation therefore serves a crucial function because it allows us the chance to see things that we normally don’t get to see, and perhaps the most important of these is being able to see the process of fabrication, of creating worlds.

The breath is one of the most common meditation objects and that is because it is a particularly good subject for meditation: watching the breath brings together the physical fabrication of the body and the mental fabrications of thought, feeling and perception in the same place. [1] By watching the breath we can witness any fabrications of both body and mind going on in real time. But the breath also has the advantage of being pretty neutral to start with, it has few compelling features – there isn’t much you can say or feel about the breath- so we can recognise that anything that does come up while we are watching it must have been fabricated because it is otherwise as stimulating as watching paint dry.

Some subjects, like the breath, or mindfulness of the body, give us access to this process of creation, but crucially most other subjects instead take us away from it, and when we go away from it, we forget that what we are experiencing is a fabrication and treat it all as real. This is why our experience of sitting peacefully in meditation is so different to our experience once the thoughts come rushing back into our mind when the sit ends; those thoughts don’t provide us with a frame of reference, like the breath, that makes it easier to understand that our thoughts are not real [4], so we forget to just ‘let them go’ and we get stressed, tense, and upset by them.

Another thing I have found useful is to consider about the way Thanissaro Bhikkhu talks about fabrications is that when you are sitting in meditation and a thought has come up that takes you away from your meditation object, you have not been ‘distracted’ as such, what has actually happened is that you have created another world and chosen to move into, presumably because the one you were previously in was a bit dull, or uncomfortable. By making a new focus, you have changed your frame of reference, but the chances are that your new frame of reference doesn’t allow you to see the process of construction that made it as easily, so you get swept along by it because it seems real. This is why we get so lost in meditation, because the new subject of our focus obscures the fabrication process and it can take a long time before we suddenly realise ‘oh I’m thinking about rubbish! I’m supposed to be watching the breath!’

But when we use the breath as our focus, we have the potential to see all the changes happening really clearly and understand our role in creating them. As our breath speeds up or slows down, we can see directly what kind of feelings that creates in the mind and body. We can see what experience is created when we choose to ignore a little niggle that comes up in our knee, or bat off a stray thought that pops into the mind, or conversely what happens when we choose to follow it. Whatever sensations we experience watching the breath, we have better access to seeing  the causal link between the choices we make of what to focus on or ignore, and the way that we feel. When we are able to do that, then we can understand how we have made our experience of the world that we are in through our choices.

Getting beyond fabrication is the ultimate aim of enlightenment, but until we get there we have to accept that our experiences are all made of fabrications. This isn’t a problem though, because as I said last week the only way to escape from fabrications is to use fabrications, skilful ones.

We do this by picking skilful frames of reference to fabricate on, such as the breath, that allow us access to the fabrication process, and the more we witness it the more we come to understand the what and how of it, which will eventually give us the realisation we need to allow us to stop doing it.

When we think about meditation distractions as being other worlds, it opens up a different way for us to think about them. It highlights that we are not hapless victims of our distractable mind but that we are the creators of our experience. We are not to sit passively hoping for the mind to latch onto the breath instead of a train of thought, we are to be active. The breath is not a sensation waiting to be watched, it is an experience that we need to make. Our lack of attention on the breath is down to our lack of effort in making that experience happen, and our efforts being put into making something else instead.

When a distraction comes up you can say to yourself ‘I don’t want to go to that world’ and stop supporting it. Or you can reflect on the drawbacks of being in certain other worlds, like the habits it creates in your mind, or the ways it makes you feel, and decide to not go there. [4] You can often also observe that these kinds of fabrications create a feeling of tension, and wanting to get rid of that feeling of tension might be enough to persuade you to let go of the distraction world you have created.

I feel this last point is an important one to be aware of, because one of the other special qualities the breath has as a meditation object is that it has the potential to create feelings of peace, wellbeing, and even bliss. Using the breath becomes even more skilful when we use it not only because it allows us to observe the process of fabrication, but when we also actively utilise it to create feelings of pleasure that do not rely on worldly experiences.

Last week I mentioned that the Buddha said all human actions are aimed at achieving happiness, so to wean ourselves off worldly sources of happiness we need to find more wholesome sources of happiness. In fact the Buddha says that we cannot fully give up the pleasures we gain from the world until we have developed the ability to gain pleasure from meditation.

So when we sit to meditate it is important to cultivate pleasant feelings at the same time, and this isn’t just because it feels nice, it is also potentially very skilful. When our meditation experience is pleasant, we notice that the mind doesn’t wander off -there is less inclination to make other worlds because the one that we are in is meeting our needs, so pleasure helps us to maintain our skilful frame of reference.

Accessing the particular kind of cool and steady pleasure that comes from meditation is supportive in maintaining your concentration, because it makes worldly pleasure seem coarse and unsettling in comparison, and given the choice between the two it is a no brainer to pick the more refined pleasures of meditation. When you have managed to get the mind to settle nicely onto your meditation subject and a thought comes along, the roughness of the feeling from it is often enough for you to reject it spontaneously.

This is something I have noticed from spending a bit of time really focussing on maintaining just one fabrication in my meditation sit. With all of my effort going into making the experience of the breath, I have more consistently gotten to the point where the mind has calmed, and I experience pleasant feelings. When other potential distractions come along, I’m just not as interested in them, and when thoughts come along that make me feel annoyed or irritated, I feel pretty repelled by them – why would I want to make myself feel like that when I could feel peaceful instead?

Working with my experience as fabrications and intentions has been really helpful for me, because it has helped me to move my mindset away from the idea that there are things in the world that are ‘distractions’ and that I have to resist them, to one where I see that I am making my experience and that all of these so called distractions were also created by me, so I need to make a choice about what it is that I am turning my mind to.

This sense of responsibility for my experience works well for me because it compels me to take ownership of what is going on in my world. If I can’t notice the breath in meditation, it is because I haven’t made it well enough, and I need to give myself over to that endeavour more fully, it isn’t because ‘I can’t concentrate’. If I am being ‘distracted’ in meditation it is because I am making other worlds and deciding to focus on them instead, so I need to stop doing that and focus my energy into making my experience of my meditation object really clear.

Agency over our experience is something I have written about before, especially in Don’t Wait, Cultivate, and I personally feel that it is an important element in getting our practice in getting us to the point where we start to get consistent benefits out of it in terms of being able to lessen the impact of stressors and being able to consistently generate feelings of wellbeing when we need to.

But this doesn’t necessarily work for everyone straight away, especially if you haven’t yet been able to discern the stern voice in your head saying ‘I must try harder to make the breath!’  is also another one of your fabrications. But the whole point of practicing meditation is so we can learn to see the fabrications that we currently don’t realise we are creating, so on some level we just need to jump in and learn from our mistakes. We just need to set our mind on the intention to use the breath as our meditation object, and keep going through the process of making that world, then going off to another world, noticing that we have gone off to another world, and keep coming back to the breath, over and over again until we slowly start to understand the process. So no matter how complicated a subject it might seem, it only needs one good fabrication to get started on working with it.

Image by InspiredImages from Pixabay

References

  1. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2003) Meditations 1: Forty Dhamma Talks: Tuning in to the Breath. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations.html. Accessed 18 May 2021
  2. SuttaCentral Dhammapada: Maggavagga. https://suttacentral.net/dhp273-289/pli/ms. Accessed 20 May 2021
  3. Phra Ajaan Suwat Suvaco (1995) A Heart Released: The Teachings of Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta Thera. Translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/mun/released.html. Accessed 18 May 2021
  4. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2003) Meditations 1: Forty Dhamma Talks: Fabrications. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/meditations.html. Accessed 18 May 2021

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